I wasn’t raised with Roald Dahl, so I come to the adaptations of his work — Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG, The Witches, to name but three — without any preconceived notions or, to put it bluntly, any baked in excitement. As a kid I even missed the first adaptation of Dahl’s 1964 book, Charlie And the Chocolate Factory, retitled as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. As the origin story, Wonka, is coming out, I figured it was time to catch up with the original and revisit the Tim Burton take before getting to the new movie.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)| Directed by Mel Stuart | Written by Roald Dahl and David Saltzer | 100 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | on Crave
It feels a bit foolish to try and summarize the plot of a movie more than 50 years old, but here’s the nuts: Charlie Buckets (Peter Ostrum) is a poor child in an unnamed, very European-looking town — shot in Munich — who earns money for his family delivering newspapers. Both sets of grandparents never get out of bed, though we’re never told why. In town is a chocolate factory run by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), and no one’s ever seen coming or going from the factory gates. Wonka launches quite a marketing campaign: five golden tickets in his Wonka Bars, the recipients and one of their family members gets a lifetime supply of chocolate and a tour of the chocolate factory.
The most unhinged and satisfying part of the movie — which is a musical, incidentally — is the golden ticket hysteria, which serves as a satire on capitalism, the media, and, uh, the candy industry, I guess.
Five children from around the world find the tickets — and handily all speak English — and Charlie is one of them. The other four are bratty grotesques, enabled by their parents. The worst, maybe, is Veruca Salt — I’m more familiar with the ’90s band by that name — played by Julie Dawn Cole. Her father, played by renowned British character actor Roy Kinnear buys hundreds of thousands of boxes of chocolate to secure a golden ticket for his spoiled daughter. Charlie chooses his Grampa Joe (Jack Albertson) to join him for a factory tour.
The factory, when they finally get access, is a phantasmagorical world — inspired by 1960s psychedelia in places — made up of the stuff childhood fantasies. Enormous arboretums where all the flowers, plants, and trees are edible, rivers of chocolate, and a whole lot more. Wilder’s Wonka is deliciously ambivalent about his visitors, even cruel when they come to harm while under his hospitality — like being inflated into a giant blueberry — but the film is clever enough to let us appreciate their twisted fates and his sangfroid.
So, what’s it all about? The Oompa Loompas, Wonka’s orange-faced army of little people, give us a few hints in their songs. A screed against entitlement is perhaps most likely interpretation — but it also sometimes feels like the movie wants to scare children in its audience into behaving. This while Charlie’s kindness and maturity beggars belief, but it eventually pays off. Would any of us be that good?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) | Directed by Tim Burton | Written by John August | 115 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | on Netflix and Crave
I saw this film when it first came out — as I do most of Tim Burton’s work. The only genuine surrealist working in Hollywood for many years — until Wes Anderson arrived on the scene — his films are usually an event. This is one that faded quickly in my memory, which surprises me now because upon revisiting I found it to be something of a joy, the place where Burton and Anderson stylistically intersect. (I recommend going deeper with Anderson’s solid short film collection of Dahl adaptations on Netlfix.)
The Burton picture feels darker, but perhaps more coherent than the Mel Stuart film. The story is very much the same, impoverished Charlie (Freddie Highmore) lives with his family, father and mother this time (Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter), with grandparents in the bed. When Charlie nabs the golden ticket, he and Grampa Joe (David Kelly of Waking Ned Devine fame) walk up the hill to the Dark Satanic Mills of Wonka, the massive factory, joined by those four other kids and their parental units.
A few changes here from the first film — less fun in the Golden Ticket Hysteria, and more suggestion that Wonka actually planned all the terrible things that happen to the terrible kids. Also, Charlie and his grandfather don’t cheat and incur the wrath of Wonka at any point. It’s not really a musical, but the Oompa Loompas — all played by a single actor, Deep Roy, digitally duplicated — do have a terrific collection of nasty songs.
Naturally, the production values are superb, and as Wonka, Johnny Depp is extraordinary. He may be persona non grata amongst many these days, but going back almost 20 years and he was at the peak of his powers working with his favourite director, and his Wonka is a beguiling mix of introverted, insecure, charming, and sinister, his grey pallor, page boy hair and white picket dentures a bizarre and awkward combo.
The film offers a bit of a backstory for him and his estranged father, Wonka Sr, a dentist (a perfectly cast Christopher Lee), which pays off late in the running. Does it end up feeling like a gooey and, perhaps, inessential subplot in light of the central, active coercion of this story: Bad fates befall bad kids? Maybe. I think Wonka and his motives benefit from a little mystery. But, overall, Burton’s film is a real pleasure, and hasn’t aged at all since its release.
Wonka | Directed by Paul King | Written by King and Simon Farnaby | 116 min | ▲▲▲△△ | In Cinemas
This movie is a big cloud of cotton candy, so sugary it could rot the teeth of a bus full of kids. Which, I suppose, is fine, especially if you’re one of those kids. From the director of the two incredible Paddington movies, my hopes were high for this Willy Wonka origin tale, but the baked-in weirdness of Wonka is entirely absent in this film and I missed it.
It’s a full-on musical this time, the first lines of the movie sung by Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet), an open-hearted, even naive young man with a dozen sovereigns in his pocket arriving in the big city to make his dreams of becoming a chocolate magnate come true. The city in question is, once again, a European town of uncertain origin — I detected bits of Oxford, London, Berlin, and Paris — but the cast all rock different accents, which works well to help define their characters if not the locale.
Wonka is quickly separated from his cash and thrown into servitude in the washhouse of Miss Scrubitt (Olivia Colman, going with a Cockney accent so big she must’ve been born in the Bow Church). This is by the command of the chocolate cabal already running things in this town: Prodnose (Matt Lucas), Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), and Slugworth (the excellent Paterson Joseph). Their chocolate is so good they’ve been using it to bribe town officials, like the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) and a corrupt priest, Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson, adding to his comedic portrayals of men of the cloth).
This house arrest doesn’t keep Wonka down, nope. He’s soon back out on the streets using his gift of magic and chocolate-making to find customers.
I won’t deny a lot of this is a good time. The production value is superb, the cast a blast. There’s some business with a giraffe named Abigail that’s a treat, and soon Wonka has a group of pals, all of whom are also stuck at Scrubitt’s, helping him out — Calah Lane and Jim Carter (of Downton Abbey fame) make the biggest impression. A tiny Hugh Grant eventually appears as the sole Oompa Loompa — and with him the return of the original, earworm Oompa Loompa song, absent from the Tim Burton movie. This movie could use a lot more of Grant’s special crabbiness.
Chalamet is a good dancer with an OK voice, and he gets at least one fun number, “You’ve Never Had Chocolate Like This Before,” but many of the songs are the of the sappy, sub-Disney variety without much to recommend them, and you’ll end up wishing more of the characters sang them.
Mostly, the absence of that preoccupied, slightly sinister Wonka of the earlier movies is what makes Wonka a bit of a disappointment, despite all the talent arrayed. Chalamet is entirely unthreatening, cleaving toward his well-scrubbed teen idol persona, and at no point do we ever get a sense of why that older Wonka got so peculiar.
The Dahl story that worked as a cautionary tale for misbehaving children? It’s been subsumed by a yarn about a young capitalist ferreting out corruption, making friends and forming partnerships for mutual wealth management, like the movie was made in the 1980s.
And it’s so bloody sweet.